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Read about some of the innovative ways rail is boosting its sustainability credentials.

Posted by Dave Songer on Mar 25, 2019

Crossrail used material from tunnelling to build an entirely new bird habitatThere are many reasons why public transport remains such a firm favourite among the public. Necessity will of course be behind many of those journeys, particularly during morning and evening rush hours, but even those who can’t complete their journeys using their own transport will admit that (when it goes right) there are few better ways to travel. We know from asking the subjects of our 5 Minutes With… interviews about their favourite train journeys just how strong the connection to with train travel is, with ‘civilised’ and ‘relaxing’ two words that crop up often.

With rail, another aspect of travelling over tracks that undoubtedly appeals is how comparatively small its carbon footprint is relative to cars, buses and aeroplanes. According to Eurostar, the equivalent journey by plane from London to Brussels produces 59.7kg CO2 compared with 5.8kg, while making the trip from England’s capital to Amsterdam produces 64.2kg CO2 compared with 10.7kg. That’s when a rail network is up and running, but the sustainability picture is obviously very different when building one – with the concrete and increased emissions that construction brings. As was shown with the as-yet-unfinished Crossrail infrastructure project, however, it doesn’t always have to be bad news. Europe’s largest infrastructure project helped create a new bird habitat [pictured] in the neighbouring country of Essex, relocating 4.5 million tonnes of excavated material that was dug up by the tunnel boring machines that snaked their way under London.

In this feature, SmartRail World looks at some of the other ways that the rail industry is making rail travel more sustainable, clearly demonstrating the energy that is going into making our wonderful industry greener.

Is it a tram or is it a bus? News surfaced recently about plans from Cambridge, after the UK’s famous university town said it would introduce a £4 billion tram capable of travelling in pretty much any direction it wants, due to the fact it won’t be on rails. What makes this new form of transport suitable for this feature, and somewhat different to the trams we’re used to, is that there will be no overhead electrical infrastructure and will instead be powered by a battery that is charged up at the end of its day of service. Meaning little impact on the local area. Cambridge's new transport system will echo a similar tram-style network already in operation in China that is able to run autonomously. The UK's is scheduled for introduction in 2029 and plans appear to be in an advanced state with 24 stations forming the network that will also include two underground stations in the centre of the historic city.

Not just hot air

HS2Following on from Crossrail’s work in the area of sustainability, it is another major UK project that will far outweigh Crossrail in terms of scale. I write of course about HS2. Currently scheduled for introduction from 2026, the high-speed network announced this month that it would be able to heat homes and provide them with warm water by harnessing waste heat generated as a result of trains pulling into and out of the new hub station, Old Oak Common. It will achieve this rather lofty aim by extracting the heat using five bespoke pumps that will pass on the benefit to 500 homes. The initiative could potentially be a very welcome addition to the local area; in related news, the UK government recently announced that it would outlaw the installation of gas boilers in new homes, as part of a target to reduce the UK’s emissions.

SmartRail 2019 advisory board What are the industry’s most pressing concernsFor the inside track on how to build the digital railway of the future visit SmartRail, the 3-day event taking place on 17th-19th June in Munich. To read the agenda, see the speakers taking part and to register for the event, please visit the show website.


The power of the sun

The next innovative use of energy follows neatly on from HS2's proposed efforts, harnessing one of the world’s other natural resources: the sun’s rays. It may not be the newest of ideas, but it is worth a mention here simply because of the growing number of operators using the approach to provide back up power. The city of Los Angeles notably began using solar power to generate 1.2 megawatts of renewable, emission-free power that it claimed would reduce its carbon emissions by more than 3,700 tonnes, roughly the output of 600 cars.

Photovoltaic screens will create vast reserves of power for the Santiago MetroThe South American country of Chile announced two years later that its Santiago Metro would run entirely on solar power; the city’s metro officially made good on half of that proposal with the opening in 2018 of a photovoltaic system that meets 42% of the its electricity needs. SmartRail World reported last year of an ambitious system that its makers said would help support the world’s future energy demands – not just rail. It works by installing photovoltaic railway sleepers on the pre-existing tracks that would reportedly make them capable of delivering gigawatts of green energy back into the grid and into people’s homes. The solar panels made of silicone and aluminium are designed to clip over existing railway sleepers, producing 200 Mw of electricity for every 1,000km of track.

Pick-me-up sustainability

On now to a product that so many of us can’t start the day without – coffee – and the single-use cups in which a majority of them are sold. They’ve become something of a symbol of bad practice in the consumables industry because of the effort required to sustainably break them down and the UK rail operator Chiltern Railways has decided to do something about it. Introduced in 2019, Chiltern rolled out a coffee recycling scheme that enables commuters in any 32 of its stations to sustainably dispose of not just the cups, but also the lids and any remaining contents. The numbers behind the scheme are significant and could, according to the operator, lead to around 300,000 cups being collected and recycled from one of its stations alone (Marylebone) over the next 12 months. The prominent UK chef, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, was in the news last year for questioning South Western Railway on its policy not to fill up reusable cups instead of using single-use alternatives, after he was refused on a journey he took. The train operator reversed its policy following the publicity, brought about after Fearnley-Whittingstall tweeted about his experience.

We’ve reported in the past of Network Rail’s ongoing efforts to make use of the coffee grounds that are left over from making the millions of lattes, macchiatos and espressos – using more than 790 tonnes of the caffeine by-product to power some of the UK capital’s buses. Like Chiltern, the manager of much of the UK's network said last year that it too was looking at recycling disposable coffee cups with the introduction of a plan to ban the use of plastic cutlery among retailers across its sites by 2020.

You may also be interested in this:

Visit: SmartRail, building the digital railway of the future.

Read: Recycling on the networks: A look at operators' efforts in 2018.

Read: Network Rail revises sustainable targets to rid single-use cups and plastic by 2020.

Read: 5 Minutes With… David Shipman, signalling innovations manager at Network Rail.

Topics: Sustainable, SRW Featured

Dave Songer

Written by Dave Songer

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